Missouri and QB James Franklin ran wild in the Tigers’ opener last week against SE Louisiana, 62-10, but the Bulldogs are a whole other cup of tea.
COLUMBIA, Mo. — The conference affiliation is brand new, and the tailgaters no doubt will show up much earlier.
A new era has dawned at Missouri, which makes its Southeastern Conference debut tonight at 7:45 p.m. on ESPN2 against No. 7 Georgia, and there’s no denying the excitement. Even coach Gary Pinkel failed to stick to his usual “it’s the next game” script for more than a sentence or two on media day before gushing about the historic relevance like a season-ticket holder about to affix a tiger tail to his SUV.
“It’s an important game. Our fans have been talking about it since March. It’s huge,” Pinkel said. “That place is going to be wild. All of that is great.”
The atmosphere will be nothing like the opener, when there were about 10,000 empty seats on a rainy day that ended with a 62-10 rout of lower-division Southeastern Louisiana. It has been argued that the Week 2 matchup, bolstered by Georgia’s ranking, is one of the biggest ever at Faurot Field.
There are plenty of firsts ahead, with top-ranked Alabama coming to town in October. So players know they can’t afford to get too fired up for the Bulldogs.
“It’s not a game-breaker either way,” senior receiver T.J. Moe said. “If you come out and don’t play your best, it’s not really going to mess up your season. But you also would really like to come out and set the tone. When you play well early on in the season, you get a lot of confidence, and your team really gets on the right track.”
The buzz surrounding Missouri’s SEC debut isn’t lost on Georgia.
“Every athlete wants to be able to play in the ‘big’ game,’ ” UGA DB Damian Swann said. “That’s how you make a name for yourself and for the program.”
Still, the defending champions in the SEC East are treating this is a business trip.
“Well, you have to play them sooner or later, and you have to play someone first,” coach Mark Richt said. “No matter who you play first, you’re going to be really concerned about them. It’s a game that means so much, and it’s a game that you know you’re going to be playing an outstanding opponent. It’s on the schedule, let’s play it.”
It’s a bit of a first for Georgia, too.
For the first time in 20 years, South Carolina is not the opponent in the Bulldogs’ conference opener. Georgia will be playing in Columbia, Mo., instead of Columbia, S.C.
“We knew when we added teams that change was coming, so here’s the change,” Richt said. “I like away games. I enjoy the travel with the team, and I enjoy the single purpose of the mission.”
Georgia could use some momentum after dropping a notch in the poll following a 45-23 opening victory against Buffalo, picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the MAC. Getting back some or all of the players from disciplinary suspension or injury would help.
The Bulldogs’ defense might have trouble containing Missouri quarterback James Franklin, dangerous with his legs as much as his arm, if safety and former Seminole County star Bacarri Rambo — one of UGA’s only two All-Americans a season ago — and inside linebacker Alex Ogletree aren’t back this week. Richt still hasn’t said one way or another whether either will play after neither dressed last week. Cornerback Sanders Commings and linebacker Chase Vasser are expected to serve out two-game suspensions for offseason arrests.
“You prepare for the scheme,” Pinkel said. “I don’t know if they’re going to be back or not, but you can’t be worried about that. If they play, they play.”
Oddsmakers like Georgia by a slight margin this week, and South Carolina, Tennessee and Florida also are favored against the Tigers.
“You have to prove yourself, you have to earn respect,” Pinkel said. “I have no problem with everybody having questions about us.”
The Tigers aren’t exactly sleeping dogs given excitable defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson’s bluster after the opening rout. Richardson said he was watching Georgia earlier on game day but turned off his TV because Georgia plays “old man football” and that “if we execute, nobody in this league can touch us. Period.”
Too late to stay off the bulletin board, Richardson was muzzled on media day, leaving teammates to interpret his thoughts in less inflammatory fashion.
Linebacker Will Ebner agreed with Richardson’s assertion that many SEC schools play more of a basic style than some schools in the Big 12, emphasizing fundamentals over trickery.
“No matter what he says, I know he respects that team,” Ebner said. “A lot of that coming from Sheldon, he’s just excited.”
AUBURN, MISSISSIPPI STATE SET TO OPEN SEC PLAY VS. ONE ANOTHER:
STARKVILLE, Miss. — Auburn and Mississippi State are out to prove they belong in the conversation of contenders for the Southeastern Conference Western Division title.
Whoever wins Saturday’s game at Davis Wade Stadium will have a much better case for that argument.
The Bulldogs (1-0) and Tigers (0-1) are generally viewed in a similar fashion — two solid programs that are a notch below the division’s elite class of Alabama, LSU and Arkansas.
A victory on Saturday won’t necessarily change anyone’s mind. But a loss almost certainly knocks either team out of the running.
“It’s very important to find a way to win this game and catapult ourselves into the rest of conference play,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said.
While Mississippi State started its season with an easy 56-9 home victory over Jackson State, Auburn opened with a 26-19 loss to No. 14 Clemson at a neutral site game in Atlanta.
Mullen said the loss didn’t do anything to dim his respect for Auburn. He also said it’s difficult to prepare for the Tigers considering they’re still getting used to new coordinators on both the offense and defense.
“We’re going to have to be kind of prepared for the unknown in this situation,” Mullen said. “But the key is if we execute and take care of the ball and play hard, we’re going have the opportunity to win the game.”
Mississippi State has a revamped offense led by junior quarterback Tyler Russell and senior running back LaDarius Perkins. Both players had plenty of success against Jackson State, which plays at the Football Championship Subdivision level, but Auburn’s defense should provide a much greater challenge.
The Mississippi State-Auburn series has been extremely close in recent years, but the Tigers have pulled it out in the end, winning 17-14 in Starkville in 2010 and 41-34 at Auburn in 2011. Both sides expect the same scenario on Saturday in Starkville.
“They’ve been losing to us the past three years, and I’m sure that they’re going to be tired of losing to us,” Auburn offensive guard Chad Slade said. “It’s always come down to the wire. It’s always come down to that last-minute touchdown or that last-minute stop. We’re going to see whose team is going to be more physical.”
Auburn struggled to throw the ball against Clemson last week, with new starting quarterback Kiehl Frazier completing just 11 of 27 passes for 194 yards. Mississippi State defensive coordinator Chris Wilson said he hopes to stop the Tigers’ potent running game early and force them to throw the ball.
Mississippi State’s veteran secondary will be waiting. The Bulldogs are led by a pair of seniors — cornerback Johnthan Banks and safety Corey Broomfield.
“The key is having them throw 27 times,” Wilson said. “If you can hammer the running game and get them throwing the ball 27 to 30 times, you would think that’s your advantage. But they do a great job setting up their play-action pass off the run game, which is what makes Auburn different.”
Auburn hopes to slow down Mississippi State’s offense with defensive linemen Corey Lemonier and Dee Ford. Lemonier had two sacks against Clemson and Ford had another.
The Tigers also had some success running the ball with Tre Mason, who gained 106 yards on just 14 carries.
If recent history in the series is any indication, Auburn should have plenty of confidence heading into Saturday. But coach Gene Chizik said it’s becoming harder and harder to deal with the Bulldogs.
“This is a team that has continuously improved over the last two years,” Chizik said. “We were able to edge them out two years in a row. I know that by looking at the front end of their schedule, I’m sure that this game’s been circled on their calendar for a long time.”
Chizik said fullback Jay Prosch and suspended center Reese Dismukes will play in today’s game at Mississippi State.
Chizik suspended Dismukes following the sophomore’s arrest on a public intoxication charge a week before the opener against Clemson. He said Tuesday that he hadn’t decided if Dismukes would return to the starting lineup.
Prosch started the opener and returned to school Tuesday, a day after his mother, Iris, passed away after a battle with cancer.
Chizik said the 260-pound lead blocker attended her funeral Thursday.